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Would separate start for women be better?

By Barbara Huebner, Globe Staff, 4/15/2000

When the gun went off at the London Marathon this morning, women got a jump on things: Since 1991, the race has provided between 75 and 100 elite women athletes a separate start, 30 minutes ahead of the rest of the field, giving them more visibility, more TV coverage, and less chance for any interference, either pro or con, from men.

''It is very distinctly a women's race,'' said Nick Bitel, the chief executive of the London Marathon. ''The feedback has been very positive.''

Seems like a no-brainer for Boston? Hardly. Although race officials concede the notion has been discussed for several years, nothing is expected to change any time soon.

''In our minds, it really begins to change the very nature of the event,'' said race director Guy Morse. ''The formula where women compete amongst and with the men has worked. I'm still of the mind-set it's not even wholly endorsed by the athletes.''

Perhaps, surprisingly, he's right: Two of the most prominent women ever to run here prefer the race stay as it is.

''Personally, I like to start all together,'' said Olympic gold medalist Joan Benoit Samuelson, who won in 1979 and 1983. ''I've raced with men all my career; I think we're all in this together. Boston is all about tradition. They traditionally started together, so let's just keep it that way.''

Another voice for the status quo belongs to three-time winner Uta Pippig. ''For Boston, I like to start together with the men because it's a very traditional race,'' said Pippig, whose 2:21:45 in the first of three straight wins in 1994 smashed Samuelson's 1983 course record. ''Although in the last 10 years the women's field has gotten much stronger and more competitive, the field is still not deep enough to make the race interesting for the public.''

Others might like to see a change, but in the end bow to tradition. Among them is Elana Meyer. ''I really enjoyed the race like that,'' said Meyer, who will be running Boston for the fourth time. ''It's really exciting because you know what's going on. Here, the women get a bit lost in between the men. But in Boston what you have is so much tradition, so much history, you don't really want to change that.''

Phooey, said Kathrine Switzer, who knows a little something about the downside of tradition. ''I've said it for years: I'd love to see the women start ahead and have a separate race,'' said Switzer, who in 1967 became the first woman to officially run Boston when she entered as K. Switzer. ''It makes for a cleaner, clearer race.''

That reasoning may be the linchpin of change, elsewhere if not at Boston. When Tegla Loroupe ran 2:20:47 in Rotterdam two years ago to better Ingrid Kristiansen's longtime world best of 2:21:06, her performance was tinged by questions of unfair assistance from male pace setters, who shielded the 4-foot-11-inch, 85-pound Kenyan from the wind and handed her fluids. (Loroupe lowered the mark by 4 seconds last year in Berlin and on Sunday won the women-first London Marathon.) As a result of the ensuing controversy, the International Amateur Athletic Federation, which is the governing body of the sport, recently decided it will recognize world bests by women only if they are set in either single-gender races or races in which the women start at least 15 minutes before the men.

While such a ruling doesn't directly affect Boston, whose point-to-point course and net elevation drop make it ineligible for world bests, it could prompt changes elsewhere that would have a trickle-down effect here.

''If that becomes the standard way of doing business, we would continue to look at it,'' said Morse.

There are reasons beyond tradition for the mixed feelings. Some elite women say the men around them can be annoying, getting in the way at the elite-women's fluid tables and jostling for camera position.

''Sometimes men go in front of you because they want to be seen on television, and it bothers you,'' said Lornah Kiplagat of Kenya, who has marathon wins in Amsterdam and Los Angeles and is making her Boston debut. Others say the opposite: ''I like to run with the men; you have some company,'' said Pippig.

Others involved in the sport are solidly for a separate start. ''Yes, 1,000 percent,'' said Mark Wetmore, the Boston-based agent for defending champion Fatuma Roba. ''It takes any questions away from the race. Plus, I think it makes it more interesting.''

It also, in some ways, makes it more difficult. In marathoning, there are no women rabbits because the talent pool is not yet deep enough: Any woman fast enough to set a world-record pace through 25 kilometers is almost certainly going to be running to win the race, not to help anyone else. So, women in a mixed-gender race often key off some man in front of them, either to draft or simply to match strides.

''Some women like the idea and understand what we're doing,'' said Bitel, the London official. ''Others, I'm sure, would welcome a windbreak.''

Although it is technically illegal in US road racing for a woman to be paced by a man, the infraction would need to be blatant before it could be detected, much less enforced.

Thus, a women-only start adds a degree of difficulty. ''It's not as much fun,'' said Switzer. ''You have to focus harder.''

Then there are the logistics. Some, said technical director Dave McGillivray, actually become easier: access to elite fluid stations; safety around the women's lead vehicle, which now has to weave among the men in front of it; earlier TV coverage instead of having to wait until the 7-mile mark, when the mass of runners finally thins out enough for a camera truck to ease into the crowd. Others, not so: foremost among them the likely need for earlier road closures in the eight cities and towns along the route. ''When you make a change here in Boston, we have to be 100 percent sure it enhances the race and that there's minimal downside,'' said McGillivray. ''We have to make sure what we ultimately decide will absolutely work.''

One thing's for sure. If ever there was an overriding reason to start the women first, Runner's World publisher George Hirsch found it yesterday:

''Think of Wellesley,'' he said dreamily.

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